“Be nice, or next thing you know Raney will be in the closet talking to her imaginary friend.” Glen howled with laughter at his own joke. There was a thin sheen of perspiration on his red face, which he mopped with a napkin.
So far Thanksgiving had been pretty much what Raney had expected. Noisy children, forced joviality, too much alcohol, too much food, a lot of it lukewarm. The men gathered to watch football in the basement rec room, while the women gathered in the overheated kitchen, basting the 25-pound turkey and checking the Virginia ham, lifting lids off steaming pots, stirring gravy, gossiping about whoever wasn’t in the room. Kids ran in and out of the kitchen, shrieking as they snatched marshmallows out of the bag next to the yams.
Raney hovered uneasily on the outskirts of both groups of adults, talking in an undertone to her husband David when he came up the basement stairs in search of a free bathroom, slipping into the chair next to his when the twelve of them sat down at the dinner table. She was the youngest in her generation—her burly brother Glen and sister Jenna and cousins all almost ten years older than her thirty-two—and frequently the butt of family humor. It didn’t help that she was the one who’d gone to college, and then graduate school. They made remarks about how they’d have to mind their grammar around her, about all the books she’d read, about all the money she was probably making as a college teacher with no kids to support. “Not as much as you might think, Glen. Probably less than Biddy’s making teaching elementary school.” “Right,” he snorted, winking at his wife as if to say she was holding out on them. “No bun in the oven yet?” Raney felt a flash of annoyance as Glen nudged David, though she knew Glen or someone was going to say it.
She could predict every topic of conversation. But the imaginary friend was new.
“What imaginary friend?” Raney asked. “What are you talking about?”
“Whatshername. The one you were always talking to when you were a kid.” Glen turned to Jenna. “You remember, don’t you? Jeez, she was a weird kid.”
“Sort of,” Jenna said. “I haven’t thought about that for years. I remember Raney was always going into the closet in Mom and Dad’s room. Wasn’t she talking to herself?”
“Nah. It was a friend.”
“Who was she? What was her name?” Raney asked. But they were already talking about something else and nobody heard her.
The thought consumed her. Had she really had an imaginary friend? Could she have forgotten such a thing? Her grad school friend Priscilla suggested that she should ask her mother, but when Raney called, her mother was absorbed in the grandchildren’s colds, her upcoming cruise to Alaska, her bridge club. “I’m sure I don’t know. It can’t be important now, can it?”
She couldn’t shrug it off. One late afternoon in the library, a few weeks after Thanksgiving, Raney had the oddest feeling that she was being observed. The stacks were dimly lit, with timed switches at intervals on the rows of shelves that kept shutting off, plunging the second story into semidarkness. Someone seemed to be hovering in her vicinity, their footsteps muffled by the carpet. She turned the page in the Norton Anthology she was using for class and happened on an Emily Dickinson poem she’d barely noticed before. “One need not be a Chamber—to be Haunted—,” it opened, “One need not be a House— / The Brain has Corridors—surpassing / Material Place—.” She wondered if she’d always been unconsciously haunted by the disappearance of her imaginary friend. “Ourself, behind ourself concealed.” Had the two of them been constant companions? Was her friend a protector, or a mischief-maker? A leader, or a follower? What was her name? Did she just vanish as Raney got older, or did they have a falling out?
“I think she was there watching me,” she told David over grilled cheese sandwiches later that night. “I mean, don’t you think it’s weird?”
David worked with facts and numbers at the bank. He wasn’t the curious type, and usually, she appreciated that. He checked her wilder speculations. But tonight she was impatient with his grave good sense.
“No one was watching you. Little kids are always walking around talking to themselves, having little tea parties with invisible guests, stuff like that. It’s a kid thing. Imaginary friends don’t come back.”
She wasn’t looking for generalizations about how common it all was. She was looking for specifics about her lost friend.
“I can’t help wondering. Do you think I visualized her, actually saw her, or just heard her? Do you think I did most of the talking, or she did? What did she say?”
“Jeez, who knows? One question with you turns into twenty. You get obsessed.”
When the spring semester started in January, she spent the first week of her American literature survey on Poe and was startled by the whispering double in “William Wilson,” though she’d taught the story before. The ghosts in James’ “Turn of the Screw” took on new emotional urgency. Were they supernatural, or all in the governess’s mind? Was the doppelgänger in James’ “The Jolly Corner” real?
Raney kept thinking that she might turn a corner in her mental wanderings and encounter her old companion. She was sure she’d recognize her. They’d known each other so intimately, been closer than sisters once. She could almost picture them crouched on the floor of her mother’s closet, whispering in the dim light that came in under the closed door. The floor would have been crowded with shoes. Dusty shoe boxes were stacked against the wall on one side. The hems of her mother’s dresses fluttered, soft on her cheeks, smelling intensely of her mother’s perfume. Sometimes when they were alone the two of them ventured out of the closet, prancing around the bedroom in her mother’s high heels and striking poses in front of the full-length mirror. Cool gray light filtered through the white drapes, always closed, reflecting off the mirror, the only bright spot in the room. Except for their giggles, the room was hushed. She’d been so happy! She was sure she could remember that much at least, the deep happiness of their companionship.
Raney disliked the apartment they’d found in Genesee, the paper-thin walls, water-stained ceiling tiles, crooked Venetian blinds, mirrored sliding doors on the closets in both bedrooms. She could smell carpet-cleaning chemicals and long ago cigarette smoke, though David said she was imagining it. It was bigger than their Wisconsin apartment, much cheaper, only temporary. They were saving money for a condo. She took the small second bedroom for her study and taped posters and postcards of authors on the closet doors. Slivers of mirror were still visible, reflecting bits of her body when she entered the room—a shoulder here, a leg there, a glimpse of her profile. She positioned the desk so her back was to the closet, but she was aware of the mirrors, and of the authors staring over her shoulder—the over-sized posters of Dickinson and Whitman, the neatly aligned army of postcards, mostly of women writers, Woolf, Jewett, Stein, Wharton, Charlotte Perkins Gilman.
She’d been working on an article on “The Yellow Wallpaper” for some time. The tenure requirements at Genesee State weren’t stringent, but she’d almost finished her third year without a publication, bound to be a black mark on her annual pre-tenure review. The topic she’d come up with seemed easy: she would use Gilman’s novel Herland as a basis for arguing that the world beyond the wallpaper was a feminist utopian alternative to the dystopia of the patriarchal medical establishment of the day. The woman who emerged from the wallpaper was not a symptom of the narrator’s insanity, then, but rather an emissary welcoming her into a better world.
There was a journal affiliated with the Gilman Society that probably wouldn’t be too competitive. But the article was giving her more trouble than she’d expected. There had been so much criticism on “The Yellow Wallpaper” that she found herself endlessly slogging through arguments and counter-arguments. She’d concluded that no one had come up with her idea, not because it was so striking and original, but because it was untenable. After all, the narrator was crawling in circles on the floor at the end of the story, not walking confidently through some portal into the unknown. Raney was determined to finish the article anyway, to satisfy the tenure committee. At this point, her desk was piled high with books and photocopied articles, as well as with Freshman English and American Literature papers that needed grading, and she found herself working far into the night to get everything done.
Usually, David was asleep, the light already out by the time she got to bed, but she was bothered by the closet doors, which reflected and magnified the faint light in the corridor. She’d planned to cover them with fabric, but David liked them and had made jokes when they first moved in about mirrored ceilings in Las Vegas honeymoon suites. She’d laughed too, as they’d watched themselves in the mirror, but she was getting tired of it. Their sex life was starting to feel like a bad porno flick. David wanted the lights on. She wanted the lights off, and no longer enjoyed sex in the afternoon the way she used to, unless it was on the living room couch, away from the mirrors.
“Do you think it’s the governess’s sexual hysteria that conjures the ghosts in James?” she asked Priscilla on the phone.
“God yes. Don’t you?” she answered. “No one in James is ever getting enough! They all need to get laid.”
Raney missed Priscilla, their long walks in Madison when both of them went stir-crazy in the library, their lively conversations over coffee after seminars. She couldn’t talk about “The Turn of the Screw” with David like this, or any of her colleagues really, all busy with their suburban lives, their kids’ report cards, and athletic trophies. Priscilla and her husband were in Pittsburgh now, where Duff had landed a job as an adjunct, and Priscilla was still working on her dissertation. Raney knew she’d done well, finishing her degree and landing a tenure-track job, but she envied Priscilla the freedom of her days and the cultural life of a city. Genesee was dull.
“Speaking of sex, how’s it going with David?” Priscilla added.
“I don’t know. Not so great. Maybe it happens to everyone when they get older, but we’re barely in our thirties. I think it’s the apartment. We really need to get out of here.”
“Your sex life wasn’t ever all that hot, was it?”
Raney was taken aback. Priscilla’s remark sounded more like a comment than a question. She didn’t remember telling Priscilla that her sex life wasn’t so hot. In fact, she’d been fine with her sex life with David.
“Did I say that?”
“Oh, um, I thought you did.” Priscilla gave a nervous laugh. “I mean I thought you said it was kind of bland or something. No surprises, something like that?”
Raney didn’t look for surprises in bed. Unless it was David who’d said that to Priscilla, David who wanted to spice things up, as he’d once suggested. Raney had laughed at the pink plastic handcuffs and gadgets he’d brought home from a sex shop, but she was sure she hadn’t told Priscilla about that. It was embarrassing and she didn’t want David to look foolish to their friends.
“We had a pretty healthy sex life,” Raney said, cutting Priscilla short.
“Oh. Healthy,” Priscilla said. Was there a faint sneer in her tone? After she hung up, Raney thought about it, but she was sure she must be wrong. Priscilla and Duff were their best friends.
That night she and David sat on the futon couch eating pepperoni pizza out of the box, wiping their fingers with paper napkins. She waited for the right moment and couldn’t find one.
“Did you and Priscilla ever talk about sex?” she finally asked, trying to keep her tone casual. She dabbed at a grease stain on the futon with her napkin and took a sip of her wine.
“Did you ever talk about our sex life with Priscilla?” She put down her wine glass and wrapped herself in the yellow and gold afghan at the end of the sofa.
“Of course not. What gave you that idea?”
“Something she said today on the phone.”
“What did she say?”
Raney thought he sounded wary.
“I can’t remember. It was just something she said …”
“I mean maybe we talked in general. You know, we were always gabbing about something with Duff and Priscilla.” David poured himself more wine. He seemed to be avoiding her gaze.
“I don’t remember talking about sex,” Raney said.
“Well, maybe you weren’t there. It’s not really something you like to talk about.” He swirled the wine in his glass and gulped most of it down.
“What do you mean by that?”
“I mean we don’t really talk about it, do we?”
Raney looked at him, his solid torso, the familiar blue sweater, and gray sweats. For a moment he looked like someone she didn’t know at all. She suppressed a glimmer of panic. Of course, she knew David.
“Do you think there’s something we need to talk about?”
“No, I’m not saying that. You’re just not the type to talk dirty, or go into that stuff.”
“Listen, I’m beat, and I’ve got an early meeting tomorrow. I’m going to bed.”
“Maybe I should ask Priscilla, then.”
“Don’t do that. What’s the point of stirring up the past? She probably won’t remember either.”
Remember what? Raney wondered. She felt queasy from too much pizza. David hadn’t exactly answered her questions the way she expected him to.
She’d never thought of Priscilla as a competitor. Large-breasted and heavy-thighed, Priscilla was always on a diet. “You’re so skinny,” she frequently told Raney. “I wish I was a size 8.” She was a friend. She was married. Priscilla and Duff hadn’t ever cheated on each other, as far as Raney knew. Priscilla never kept secrets. She would have told her.
David was asleep by the time Raney got to bed, and she lay awake watching the red numbers change on the digital clock, rubbing her neck. Bits of memory floated in and out of her consciousness. Once when they were all at Smitty’s David had made a joke about wife swapping, but it was just a stupid joke, wasn’t it? That was something dumb rich people in suburbia did, right? He’d been drunk. And there was the time when she and Duff had both been late meeting David and Priscilla at the Hofbrau. Had Priscilla given David a meaningful look when she spotted Raney on the way to their table? Of course not.
When she sat up to go to the bathroom she thought she saw a glimmering female figure in the mirror crossing the bedroom ahead of her. She blinked, and the apparition was gone.
“Do you want five pages with the bibliography, or five pages plus the bibliography?” The girl in the front row stared at her earnestly, and for a long moment Raney couldn’t process the question or remember the girl’s name. She thought about explaining that length wasn’t really the point, but the student was waiting, pen poised, for an easy answer. “Plus the bibliography,” she said. “And please, all of you, read the website on avoiding plagiarism.” She raised her voice over the sudden chatter and laughter and scraping of chairs as the students gathered their books and backpacks for departure.
She wasn’t looking forward to reading thirty papers with titles like “Is the double in ‘William Wilson’ real?” “Are the ghosts in ‘Turn of the Screw’ real?,” “Is young Goodman Brown awake or asleep?,” “Is the governess in ‘Turn of the Screw’ crazy?” Simplistic answers to simplistic questions.
But she wanted easy answers and certainties too. She was never going to find out more about her imaginary friend. She was never going to be sure about David and Priscilla, what they’d done or said. She winced as she remembered Priscilla asking, early on, whether David was her best lover. She’d told her no. Well, he hadn’t been, at that stage in their relationship. Duff had been hard at work on his dissertation in those days, and they’d joked about him. Priscilla called him “Once-a-Week-Is-Enough-Duff,” and Raney had felt complacent about her sex life with David, livelier and more frequent than Priscilla’s, she’d thought. Had Priscilla become interested in David because of Raney’s satisfaction? She’d sometimes felt uneasy after talking to Priscilla as if she’d disclosed too much.
Her whole past was rearranging itself as she scrutinized scenes she’d forgotten. Nothing definitive, but her shoulders and neck hurt all the time now. A weight had settled in her stomach. She could hardly meet David’s eyes. He didn’t seem to notice.
Her pre-tenure review had arrived in her faculty mailbox, signed by the Chair, Dean, Provost, President, and members of the department, school, and university tenure committees. It concluded with a mild admonition about the scholarship. “While Dr. Hillyard’s performance in the areas of Teaching and Service has been well above average, her Scholarly Achievements have been below average for a professor at her rank.” She knew she had to finish the Gilman article and place it somewhere. She spent her nights buried in “The Yellow Wallpaper,” her days in a blur of fatigue.
“David says you’re working too hard.” Priscilla sounded concerned.
“David?” She couldn’t suppress a note of hysteria in her voice. Priscilla and David?
“I called the other night and you weren’t there, so we chatted a bit. I really miss you guys, the four of us getting together. I know I made a lot of jokes about his M.B.A. and business mindset but they were just jokes. David’s a great guy.”
“So you’ve been talking about me.”
“He says you’re really stressed.”
“Did you talk about me before?”
“Before what? You don’t sound like yourself. Are you getting any sleep?”
What had David told her? Did he say they weren’t having sex anymore? Raney spent all her time in front of the glowing computer screen in her study, or scribbling comments in the margins of student papers. Her eyes hurt. A tiny muscle next to her left eye sometimes twitched.
“Listen, I’ve got to run. There’s a department meeting in twenty minutes.”
The department meeting was the next day, in fact. Raney wasn’t looking forward to it. If she was assigned to one more committee, she thought she might start screaming right in the conference room. She pictured them staring at her, June all sympathetic, that old fart Mort goggle-eyed, Stanley shaking his head as if that’s what he’d expected all along when they’d hired a female, and a women’s lit scholar at that. She’d become increasingly uncomfortable with the members of the Department Tenure Committee, which Stanley had chaired. Had he drafted the line about her abysmal scholarly achievements? What exactly had they said when they conferred in their meeting? Were they jeering at her?
Raney no longer picked up when Priscilla called or answered her messages. David had always been her best friend, but they didn’t seem to communicate these days either. They talked about what to have for dinner, usually takeout, or repairs on the car and who would take it in. The chemical odor of the carpet and residue of cigarette smoke bothered her more and more.
“The smell is making me nauseous,” she told David. “It could be making us sick. We have to leave before it’s too late.”
“Relax. We won’t be here forever,” he said as if that was good enough.
The Gilman article was more or less finished but Raney was reluctant to send it out. She stayed up at night adding to the footnotes, double-checking her quotes and bibliography, straining to imagine how the article would be received. Were the flaws in her interpretation obvious? Would the editors even bother to get scholarly readers’ reports? If they sent it out to readers, it could take as long as a year before she heard anything. Would it be in time for the next pre-tenure review? What if the article was rejected? She wondered if she should just quit her job and get pregnant. She and David could move somewhere else, away from Genesee, buy a condo somewhere else. She imagined the excited flutter that their announcement at Thanksgiving would inspire. “A baby. Finally, Raney.” After all her efforts, she would end up a homemaker with kids in some suburb like her mother and her sister Jenna. David would move up in the bank. They’d buy a house. She’d collect recipes for casseroles. She’d be sucked back into the humdrum life she thought she’d escaped. She’d go stark raving mad.
“You’re tired. You’ve been worrying too much.” She watched their shadowy reflections in the mirror as David patted her on the back, pulled up the covers, and rolled over.
She knew she was worrying too much, but she couldn’t seem to stop. Her hands prickled. There was a constant buzzing in her ears that made it hard to fall asleep. Often she was short of breath.
Their lovemaking, the first in weeks, had felt perfunctory. Some sleepy groping from David before he mounted her. He’d held back, waiting for her to come, but she hadn’t. Afterward, he’d absent-mindedly murmured, “Did you remember to put the garbage cans out at the curb?” He took her silence for assent and turned away, and really nothing was his fault, Raney thought. He was tired too. Her chest felt empty. Her eyes burned as she stared at the ceiling.
She got up, naked, and crossed the living room into the kitchen for a glass of water. She could hear David’s jagged snores in the bedroom, the humming of the refrigerator, the sharp clicks of the battery-powered clock on the kitchen wall as the minutes passed. She didn’t switch on the light, preferring the concealment of the dark. The water in Genesee had a metallic aftertaste she disliked. She rinsed the glass and put it in the dishwasher. She couldn’t go back to bed. Despite her fatigue, she felt too wired to sleep. Shivering in the cold, she picked up the afghan on the couch, wrapped it around her, and walked into her study.
The room felt alive. Raney’s nerves thrummed.
“Are you here?” she whispered. She could see her form looming in the slivers of the mirror between the posters on the closet door. She stretched out her left arm.
“Are you here?”
There was a ripple in the atmosphere, the faintest of sighs.
As she struggled to slide the closet door open, Raney could hear one of the posters tearing. Inside the closet were dusty stacks of boxes, old clothes she never wore, a row of empty hangers. They jiggled as she moved the clothes to the side. She inhaled the light cloud of dust she’d disturbed as she edged into the closet and turned to slide the door back from the inside. The door rumbled on its tracks.
The closet was darker with the door shut, the quiet profound. Her heart thumped in her chest and beat in her ears as she crouched down on the floor, pulling the afghan around her more securely. She nestled into the corner and rocked herself until she began to drift off. She could hear her breathing beside her. Raney. That was her name. It had always been Raney.
“Hello, Raney,” Raney greeted her. “God, it’s been a long time.”
Sometime later Raney found herself trudging beside a highway, hand in hand with her imaginary friend, in an industrial area on the outskirts of Genesee, or a city much like it. Was it days later? Or weeks? She didn’t know how she’d gotten there, or where they were going. She was wearing rubber flip-flops, threadbare jeans, and a gray sweatshirt she didn’t recognize, the yellow afghan still wrapped around her shoulders, clutched together with one hand in the front, trailing to her ankles in the back. Her feet hurt, and she shivered with the cold. Cars whizzed by, blowing up dirt on the cracked, weedy pavement. The sky stretched on all sides, empty and gray. She was afraid that one of her students might see her, but none of the cars slowed. No one seemed interested in them, two apparently homeless women. She wondered whether David was looking for her, and whether he would find her, and whether she wanted him to. She wondered what Glen and Jenna and the rest of her family would say. Her colleagues at the university. Priscilla and Duff. Would her disappearance be reported in the newspapers? Had she disappeared? She no longer knew what was real and what was imaginary, and didn’t care. Her friend tugged on her arm as she strode ahead. Raney kept walking, content to follow after her, though her figure had become indistinct in the swirling clouds of dust that surrounded them, everything was unfamiliar, and there were no landmarks visible in the distance.
Jacqueline Doyle’s dark flash fiction chapbook The Missing Girl was just published by Black Lawrence Press. Her work has appeared, or will soon appear, in The Gettysburg Review, Southern Humanities Review, The Pinch, The Café Irreal, Hotel Amerika, Wigleaf, Luna Station Quarterly, and Occulum, and has earned Pushcart nominations, Best of the Net nominations, and Notable Essay citations in Best American Essays. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area and can be found online at www.jacquelinedoyle.com.